WASHINGTON -- The Labor Department says the number of people applying for jobless benefits plunged to its lowest level in almost three years last month.
Applications for unemployment benefits fell to 368,000, the third decline in the last four weeks. That number has to remain consistently below 375,000 to signal declines in the unemployment rate.
Analysts are predicting strong job gains in the February employment report, which comes out tomorrow.
Also, the service sector, which employs about 90 percent of the work force, expanded in February at the fastest pace in more than five years. That offers the latest sign that hiring could accelerate this year.
The Institute for Supply Management, a private trade group, says its index of service-sector activity rose to 59.7 last month, for the sixth straight monthly increase. Any reading above 50 indicates expansion.
And a new government report shows workers increased their productivity in the final quarter of 2010 at the fastest pace in nine months. But economists expect a significant slowdown in the growth rate this year as companies hit the limit of what they can squeeze out of their existing work forces and start hiring more employees.